SALT LAKE CITY — While social media is often known for spewing hate, judgment and divisiveness, some users — namely those with a large following — have utilized the platform to give back to their local communities by rallying their wide base of followers to raise money for charities.
Melea Johnson, a savvy shopper who shares her money-saving tips and tricks with people online, reaches more than 77,000 people on Instagram and another 349,000 on YouTube and recently set out to raise $10,000 for Salt Lake City nonprofit For The Kids. The organization helps feed children who rely on school for meals over the weekend or during long breaks.
Something about hungry kids resonated with Johnson’s followers, who she said is mainly comprised of mothers, and they tripled their goal and raised nearly $30,000 in just 24 hours.
“I think a lot of people want to know how to help, and they just don’t know how. They don’t know what they can do. They feel like maybe their hands are tied,” Johnson said. “That’s one thing we can do. It’s not changing the world overnight, but it’s definitely changing 1,500 kids’ lives, and that’s a huge impact.”
Instead of making a few hundred meal kits as she planned, more than 1,500 kits will be made and distributed to children living in the Rose Park area, specifically in the 84116 zip code, which has been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to For The Kids Chief executive director Minda Zoloth.
“The need is so great,” Zoloth said. “People are literally choosing to spend their last money on food or paying a bill.” With the combined effort from Johnson and a few other local organizations, Zoloth said this year they will have more than 2,700 food bags for kids — eclipsing their original goal of 450.
“It’s not just about food; it’s about telling kids that people care about them and letting them know that people want to help and that they are also filling their hearts, not just their tummies,” Zoloth said. “I think it’s so much more impactful than food.”
Zoloth said the money, the largest one-time donation they’ve ever seen, has made a huge impact and she hopes individuals continue to bring people together on social media to donate to help their local communities.
“People coming together like that to show how much they care, when they’re giving $2 when they themselves might be struggling, speaks huge to the community and what good can do, what kindness can do, and what people can do when they come together — even if it’s just everybody giving a little,” she said. “It was people giving $2 here and $1 there. And, you know, $2 buys mac and cheese. And I think that’s the great thing about this story, is that there’s a lot of bad things going on and a lot of despair, and hope is really the only thing that we can do to overcome that.”
Oftentimes, people want to help and give back — especially during the holiday season and in a pandemic that has impacted so many — but they don’t know where to start. Usually, it starts with one person, whether it be a CEO, a neighbor, or someone online with a following who can band a group together to really make a difference, according to Zoloth.
“You find one person who cares. And if they can influence others to do the same, you can create a whole village of people that are helping children, and that’s really what makes the difference,” she said. “It really does take one person caring to motivate and influence a lot of people, but you have to have that one person you have to start with that — whether it’s a huge social media person who can get $30,000 in one day or somebody in the neighborhood that says, ‘You know what? I just saw a news article on KSL and there’s hungry kids. Let’s get together and let’s have a goal of doing 50 bags.’ I mean, it takes all of that. I think it is huge.”
Scrolling through social media apps around the holiday season can often lead to a sea of posts asking for donations or to give back, leading some to feel overwhelmed or upset with those organizing the events, according to Utahn Kelly Jensen. But donating, she said, doesn’t have be viewed negatively, especially if you can’t give at this particular time — there’s other times to give, too.
Over the years, Jensen has garnered more than 69,000 followers on Instagram, where she mainly posts photos of her family. Like Johnson, she has rallied her following to raise awareness and money for local causes. Last year, she started promoting Roots Charter High School’s food pantry, which helps feed their West Valley City students, to her followers. They were able to stock the shelves full of food.
“They give everybody free lunch, and they also have this open pantry where kids can come and get whatever food they need, and there’s basically no questions asked,” she explained. “It’s not embarrassing; they don’t have to draw attention to themselves about it.”
This year, she’s helped get more food and supplies for Roots, and a few weeks ago she organized a winter clothes drive with more than 2,000 coats, hats, boots and gloves donated to schools, people experiencing homelessness, and family shelters to help them prepare for Utah’s brutal winters.
Social media has the power you give it, Jensen said, and she loves to see people using it to raise money and help others, especially during a time of great need.
While some may prefer to donate and spread joy this holiday season privately, which Jensen said she understands and often keeps her family’s service private, she knows the power behind showing people the difference they can make when people come together.
“It’s so important because it extends the ripples,” she said. “It helps people see, No. 1, how much good can be done, how meaningful those things are; No. 2, it helps people see themselves inside that opportunity where they may never have known that they could do something like that.”
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